Tag Archives: Seamus Heaney

Sept 9, 2013 Mid-Term Break

He was born 2 years and 6 days after my own father, in 1939, and when he died 10 days ago at the age of 74 Seamus Heaney left behind as indelible a mark as a writer could hope for. You don’t need me to tell you about Mr. Heaney’s contributions to verse in English (and some other languages); it’s almost enough to say that he was a poet, and he was famous, to recognize the size of his achievement. Anyway, the obituaries in the Guardian and the New York Times did a very admirable job of enlightening the man and the work and what they’ve meant to contemporary readers. I actually got a little emotional at the conclusion of the Times obit, reflecting for a second on the hours of hard work it takes to be a great communicator, and, for someone of Heaney’s tone, the generosity of spirit. “Big-hearted” was the word Paul Muldoon used at the funeral last week. Muldoon spoke of Mr. Heaney’s ability to connect readers not just to himself, but to each other.

On the same day as his funeral I was at the funeral of a close friend’s father. The eulogies–or words of remembrance, to be more precise–were wonderful, and funny, and vividly painted some lasting words and feelings. To remember Heaney today I’m running a eulogy of sorts that he himself wrote, a remembrance of the death of his little brother while the older Seamus was away at high school. I’m not sure how old this poem is, but I think it’s from one of his early collections. It’s got the Heaney hallmarks of plainspoken diction, rounded lyricism, and penetrating emotion. Gifts that we of his era are lucky to share. -ed.


I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying–
He had always taken funerals in his stride–
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were “sorry for my trouble,”
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four foot box, a foot for every year.

Jan 21, 2013 Closing Chorus from “The Cure at Troy”

Dear readers,

Thanks for bearing with us through that accidental 4-week hiatus. Away from a computer, busy, distracted, traveling–these are my excuses. But as long ago as December I’d realized that in the weeks following a horrific shooting, I’d missed a chance to put poetry to one if its other uses: healing. On the radio this week some folks were talking about MLK day and some of his speeches, and someone said, “He believed, to borrow a phrase, in a future where hope and history rhyme.” I didn’t know that phrase was so famous, but one hears reference to it every now and then. It’s a line from Seamus Heaney’s long verse re-telling of the Greek myth of Philoctetes, a character in The Iliad, which he titled “The Cure at Troy.” (first published by the Field Day Theatre Company in 1990). A critic at the time called it a “purifying play,” and it’s a story of personal morality amid encompassing carnage. The lines below, an excerpt, are among the most-quoted from the heavily-quoted Heaney, and I hope they will offer you some perspective or optimism in these days of new years and new beginnings. -ed.


Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.

The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.

Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky

That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.

October 9, 2012 Scaffolding

Founding member Sara Cohan came to my rescue last week, forwarding on the below Seamus Heaney (anagram: eyes as humane) poem for our reading pleasure. This is from his very first collection, but I’d never read it before. I think Sara had noticed my flagging energy, what with no poem last week, and since I was out of town yesterday and consequently tired to tears today, the gimme is much appreciated. In brief, what can we note about this selection? Rhyming couplets. The typical Heaney harmonies–look at the middle stanza in particular, a happy marriage of alliteration and rounded vowels. And is anyone giving that final word a second look?



Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints,

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.



July 12, 2011 God’s Secretary

Two years ago a friend gave me a copy of POETRY magazine, and it was a real treat because, although of course I’d known so many things about the flagship journal since high school, I’d never seen or read an issue! The friend passed it on because there was an interview with Seamus Heaney at the back, and he wanted to know what I thought. Well I don’t know what I think, but it now seems appropriate to use Mr. Heaney’s answers as a way to introduce a theme for our reading, and then read a poem that fits into that theme, and let our readers help me know what to think. We’ll be doing that over the next few weeks. So here’s his answer on formal poetry (the interviewer is Dennis O’Driscoll), followed by a sonnet by “new formalist” R.S. Gwynn, whom we’ve discussed on this forum before. Do you like formal poetry? Do you find form distracting, or do you find yourself not noticing? Is form a crutch, or the opposite? Finally, if Heaney is right, where does this poem succeed–can you see it moving by its own logic, not just the logic of the stanza template? (Note, by the way, that Heaney’s answer completely discounts the existence of the Shakespearean sonnet form–cracks me up…) -ed.

DOD: You mentioned earlier that a poem will come more quickly if there is a form. Would you be offended to be called a formalist?

SH: I wouldn’t be offended but I think it would be a mistake. “Formalist” to me sounds like a kind of doctrinaire position. I totally believe in form; but quite often, when people use the term, they mean shape rather than form. There’s the sonnet shape, fair enough, but it’s not just a matter of rhyming the eight lines and the other six; they happen to be set one on top of each other like two little boxes, but they’re more like a torso and pelvis. There has to be a little muscle movement, it has to be alive in some sort of way. A moving poem doesn’t just mean that it touches you, it means it has to move itself along as a going linguistic concern. Form is not like a pastry cutter–the dough has to move and discover its own shape.


Her e-mail inbox always overflows.
Her outbox doesn’t get much use at all.
She puts on hold the umpteen billionth call
As music oozes forth to placate those
Who wait, then disconnect. Outside, wind blows,
Scything pale leaves. She sees a sparrow fall
Fluttering to a claw-catch on a wall.
Will he be in today? God only knows.

She hasn’t seen His face–He’s so aloof.
She’s long resigned He’ll never know or love her
But still can wish there were some call, some proof
That He requires a greater service of her.
Fingers of rain now drum upon the roof,
Coming from somewhere, somewhere far above her.

Sept. 20, 2010: THE DOOR WAS OPEN AND THE HOUSE WAS DARK (Seamus Heaney)

Whoa, a couple weeks got by me there, and I’d meant to do such a good job with Phil Levine on Labor Day… I tell ya, the cracks are really starting to show on Monday’s Verse. Luckily, there was a joint book review of the new Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, wherein I discovered this poem, which is dedicated to my Uncle Tony. ~mjl


The door was open and the house was dark

Wherefore I called his name, although I knew

The answer this time would be silence

That kept me standing listening while it grew

Backwards and down and out into the street

Where as I’d entered (I remember now)

The streetlamps too were out.

I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger,

Intruder almost, wanting to take flight

Yet well aware that here there was no danger,

Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming

Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late summer.